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Embassy Row: A model constitution

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(Corrected paragraph:) When Hungary's top court struck down controversial new laws, judges looked to the U.S. Supreme Court for inspiration, a Hungarian jurist said Thursday.

(Corrected paragraph:) Istvan Stumpf, a member of Hungary's Constitutional Court, told the Heritage Foundation that the judicial panel had a "Marshall moment" in ruling on some of the most contentious issues based on the country's new constitution, which took effect Jan. 1.

He was referring to John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835 who established the principle of "judicial review" to rule on the constitutionality of U.S. laws.

Judge Stumpf told the conservative, Washington-based think tank that the Hungarian court struck down parts of a media law that critics claimed stifled free speech. It also overturned laws on religion, retroactive taxes and the dismissal of government employees without cause.

Those provisions in the constitution met strong opposition from the European Union and the United States.

"This court is not afraid to be a stalwart and vigilant defender of the Hungarian people's liberties if the parliament oversteps its constitutional boundaries, and the court will never be afraid to continue to do so as long as I am there," he said.

Judge Stumpf was sensitive to criticism about so-called "activist judges," a charge U.S. critics sometimes level against the Supreme Court.

"We are not legislating from the bench," he said. "We are drawing clear lines of demarcation for the legislators. It is our duty, and it is for the benefit of our country."

Judge Stumpf called the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence models for "democracies around the world." He also applauded the tea party for its support of limited government.

"In America, especially with the rise of the tea party, there is an enviable attachment and reverence to the U.S. Constitution," he said.

"It is looked upon as an intellectual masterwork but also as an inspired standard against which to judge political action as well as a source of inspiration to guide future action.

"Hungary wanted to create a similarly strong document which would be a source of patriotism and serve as a common creed for our nation."

The Hungarian constitution has one feature that fiscal conservatives in the U.S. have advocated for years. Judge Stumpf described it as "a sort of balanced-budget amendment."

The "Fundamental Law," as the constitution is formally known, requires the parliament to lower the national debt to below 50 percent of gross domestic product before the lawmakers can pass an annual budget.

Judge Stumpf said the fiscal discipline was added to the constitution because of the global economic breakdown.

"The Fundamental Law was born in the middle of the most severe economic crisis in decades. Runaway government debt and looming deficits were crippling the nations on both sides of the Atlantic," he said. "I consider this constitutional novelty to be a child of the crisis but also the hope of our children's future."

Judge Stumpf noted that he developed a respect for America's founding documents when he was studying in the U.S. in the 1980s.

"There is much talk [today] about a post-American era and American decline," he said. "I can tell you that the ideals of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the U.S. Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence were not and are not in decline.

"On the contrary. Democracies around the world, old and new, need them now more than ever."

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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About the Author
James Morrison

James Morrison

James Morrison joined the The Washington Times in 1983 as a local reporter covering Alexandria, Va. A year later, he was assigned to open a Times bureau in Canada. From 1987 to 1989, Mr. Morrison was The Washington Times reporter in London, covering Britain, Western Europe and NATO issues. After returning to Washington, he served as an assistant foreign editor ...

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